There is no such thing as western civilisation

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The values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are not the birthright of a single culture. In fact, the very notion of something called ‘western culture’ is a modern invention

ike many Englishmen who suffered from tuberculosis in the 19th century, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor went abroad on medical advice, seeking the drier air of warmer regions. Tylor came from a prosperous Quaker business family, so he had the resources for a long trip. In 1855, in his early 20s, he left for the New World, and, after befriending a Quaker archeologist he met on his travels, he ended up riding on horseback through the Mexican countryside, visiting Aztec ruins and dusty pueblos. Tylor was impressed by what he called “the evidence of an immense ancient population”. And his Mexican sojourn fired in him an enthusiasm for the study of faraway societies, ancient and modern, that lasted for the rest of his life. In 1871, he published his masterwork, Primitive Culture, which can lay claim to being the first work of modern anthropology.

Primitive Culture was, in some respects, a quarrel with another book that had “culture” in the title: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, a collection that had appeared just two years earlier. For Arnold, culture was the “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Arnold wasn’t interested in anything as narrow as class-bound connoisseurship: he had in mind a moral and aesthetic ideal, which found expression in art and literature and music and philosophy.

But Tylor thought that the word could mean something quite different, and in part for institutional reasons, he was able to see that it did. For Tylor was eventually appointed to direct the University Museum at Oxford, and then, in 1896, he was appointed to the first chair of anthropology there. It is to Tylor more than anyone else that we owe the idea that anthropology is the study of something called “culture”, which he defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Civilisation, as Arnold understood it, was merely one of culture’s many modes.

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